THE WOMEN OF CLASSIC HORROR: THE 1940S!
You could say that Evelyn Ankers is still the reigning queen of classical 1940s horror fare turned out by studios like RKO, Universal, and Monogram. But there was a host of femme scream tales that populated the silver screen with their unique beauty, quirky style, and/or set of lungs ready to wail, faint, or generally add some great tone and tinge to the eerie atmosphere whenever the mad scientist or monster was afoot. Some were even monstrous themselves…
For this upcoming Halloween, I thought I’d show just a little love to those fabulous ladies who forged a little niche for themselves as the earliest scream queens & screen icons.
I’m including Elsa Lanchester because any time I can talk about this deliriously delightful actress I’m gonna do it. Now I know she was the screaming hissing undead bride in the 30s but consider this… in the 40s she co-starred in two seminal thrillers that bordered on shear horror as Mrs. Oates in The Spiral Staircase 1945 and a favorite of mine as one of Ida Lupino’s batty sisters Emily Creed in Ladies in Retirement 1941
I plan on venturing back to the pre-code thirties soon, so I’ll talk about The Bride of Frankenstein, as well as Gloria Holden (Dracula’s Daughter, Frances Dade (Dracula) and Kathleen Burke (Island of Lost Souls) Gloria Stuart and Fay Wray and so many more wonderful actresses of that golden era…
ANNE NAGEL 1915-1956
The depraved mad scientist Lionel Atwill working with electro biology pins gorgeous red-headed Anne Nagel playing June Lawrence, to his operating slab in Man Made Monster 1941. Lon Chaney Jr. comes hulking in all aglow as the ‘Electrical Man’ which was his debut for Universal. He carries Anne Nagel through the countryside all lit up like a lightning bug in rubber armor. Man Made Monster isn’t the only horror shocker that she displayed her tresses & distresses. She also played a night club singer named Sunny Rogers also co-starring our other 40’s horror heroine icon Anne Gwynne in the Karloff/Lugosi pairing Black Friday in 1940.
She played the weeping Mrs.William Saunders, the wife of Lionel Atwill’s first victim in Mad Doctor of Market Street 1942. And then of course she played mad scientist Dr Lorenzo Cameron’s (George Zucco’s) daughter Lenora in The Mad Monster 1942. Dr. Cameron has succeeded with his serum in turning men into hairy wolf-like Neanderthal monsters whom he unleashes on the men who ruined his career.
Poor Anne had a very tragic life… Considered that sad girl who was always hysterical. Once Universal dropped her she fell into the Poverty Row limbo of bit parts. Her brief marriage to Ross Alexander ended when he shot himself in the barn in 1937, and Anne became a quiet alcoholic until her death from cancer in 1966.
MARTHA VICKERS- 1925-1971
Martha was in noir favorites The Big Sleep 1946 & Alimony 1949. This beauty played an uncredited Margareta ‘Vazec’s Daughter’along side Ilona Massey as Baroness Elsa Frankenstein and the marvelous older beauty Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva the gypsy! in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man 1943. Then she played heroine Dorothy Coleman in Captive Wild Woman 1943 and Miss McLean in The Mummy’s Ghost 1944.
Originally Martha MacVickar she started modeling for photographer William Mortenson. David O Selznick contracted the starlet but Universal took over and put in her bit parts as the victim in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and in other ‘B’ guilty pleasures like Captive Wild Woman & The Mummy’s Ghost. She was also the pin-up girl for WWII magazines.
Martha also starred in other noir features such as Ruthless 1948 and The Big Bluff 1955. She was Mickey Rooney’s third wife.
Though Logan made very few films including Opened By Mistake 1940, her contribution to women who kick-ass in horror films and don’t shrink like violets when there’s a big bald baddie coming after you with a net and a bottle of chloroform, makes you a pretty fierce contender even if you are only 7 inches tall! As Dr. Mary Robinson (Janice Logan), Logan held it all together while the men were scattering like mice from the menacing google eyed Dr. Cyclops played superbly by Albert Dekker.
FAY HELM 1909-2003
Fay Helm played Ann Terry in one of my favorite unsung noir/thriller gems Phantom Lady 1944 where it was all about the ‘hat’ and she co-starred as Nurse Strand alongside John Carradine in Captive Wild Woman. Fay played Mrs. Duval in the Inner Sanctum mystery Calling Dr. Death with Lon Chaney Jr. 1943
Fay Helm plays Jenny Williams in Curt Siodmak’s timeless story directed by George Waggner for Universal and starring son of a thousand faces Lon Chaney Jr in his most iconic role Larry Talbot as The Wolf Man 1941
Fay as Jenny Williams: “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
Fay was in Night Monster 1942. Directed by Ford Beebe the film starred Bela Lugosi as a butler to Lionel Atwill a pompous doctor who falls prey to frightening nocturnal visitations. I particularly love the atmosphere of this little chiller with its swampy surroundings and its metaphysical storyline.
Dr. Lynn Harper (Irene Hervey- Play Misty For Me 1971) a psychologist is called to the mysterious Ingston Mansion, to evaluate the sanity of Margaret Ingston, played by our horror heroine Fay Helm daughter of Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) a recluse who invites the doctors to his eerie mansion who left him in a wheelchair.
Fay gives a terrific performance surrounded by all the ghoulish goings on! She went on to co-star with Bela Lugosi and Jack Haley in the screwball scary comedy One Body Too Many (1944).
Irene Hervey as Dr. Lynn Harper –Night Monster 1942.
LOUISE CURRIE 1913-2013
Bela Lugosi as half ape half man really needed a shave badly in The Ape Man 1943, and Louise Currie and her wonder whip might have been the gorgeous blonde dish to make him go for the Barbasol. One of the most delicious parts of the film was its racy climax as Emil Van Horn in a spectacle of a gorilla suit rankles the cage bars longing for Currie’s character, Billie Mason the tall blonde beauty. As Bela skulks around the laboratory and Currie snaps her whip in those high heels. The film’s heroine was a classy dame referred to as Monogram’s own Katharine Hepburn! She had a great affection for fellow actor Bela Lugosi and said that she enjoyed making Poverty Row films more than her bit part in Citizen Kane! And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that she appeared in several serials, from both Universal & Republic like The Green Hornet and Captain Marvel.
Tom Weaver in his book Poverty Row HORRORS! described The Ape Man as “a Golden Turkey of the most beloved kind.”
Louise Currie followed up with another sensational title for Monogram as Stella Saunders in Voodoo Man 1944 which again features Lugosi as Dr. Richard Marlowe who blends voodoo with hypnosis in an attempt to bring back his dead wife. The film also co-stars George Zucco as a voodoo high priest and the ubiquitous John Carradine as Toby a bongo-playing half-wit “Don’t hurt her Grego, she’s a pretty one!”